(Monday) Office Life: Foreign-Born Students in Japanese Schools

No, I’m not talking about international students who do a year abroad. I’m talking about students who moved with their families to Japan sometime when they were in Elementary school or Jr. High School, without ever having studied Japanese before.

One would think that this isn’t too much of a problem as Japan is a pretty homogeneous society — according to the census, 98.5% of the population is Japanese. However, my experience is different. My base school is a Flex school, which is a very special type of Japanese high school for many reasons. As the name suggests, it allows for flexible scheduling, and we have morning classes, afternoon classes, and night classes that run until 9 p.m.

One of the other things that makes my Flex school so unique is that it is much more diverse than a typical Japanese high school — I estimate that about 10 – 20 % of the students at my base school are not ethnically Japanese, and most of those students were born abroad.  The Philippines, Brazil, and Peru are definitely the most represented non-Japanese countries in our student body (probably in that order), although there are a handful of other students from various Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam.

Over the past year and a half, I’ve gotten to know a lot of these students (they tend to be stronger in English than their Japanese classmates, although that is not always true) and I have a few observations on the subject that I’d like to share.

However, I’m going to try hard not to make sweeping generalizations about the Japanese education system in regards to foreign-born students. And take everything I say with a grain of salt. I realize that I am speaking from limited experience, living in my small corner of Ibaraki, Japan. I’m certainly no expert! But I’d love to hear about other ALTs’ experiences with / thoughts on the topic!

Some Challenges

In Japan, Jr. High School students must test into their chosen high school. Admission to high-level high schools (the ones that send students to some of the best universities in Japan) can be quite competitive because a place in one of those high schools sets a student up for a good future, at least in theory.

Therefore, when it comes to entering a good high school, foreign-born students are at an immediate disadvantage. It seems like many of my Brazilian and Filipino students moved to Japan while they were in junior high school (a few when they were in late elementary school), so they’d only had two or three years of studying Japanese before taking the entrance exam. I’ve heard that some Japanese junior high schools offer special language classes for foreign students, but I’m doubtful that those classes are enough to ensure that the students are at the same level of Japanese ability as their peers by the time they take the test.

From what I’ve read, the high school a student attends follows them on their resume forever, so the fact that foreign students are at a disadvantage for the high school entrance exam is actually a pretty big deal. It definitely puts them at a disadvantage for the university entrance exam if they choose to take it. Theoretically, going to a low-level school could affect a student’s future opportunities.

I know there are exceptions to the above statement, but the thought still makes me a little sad…. especially when I think of some of my brighter students who might only be at my Flex school because they struggle with kanji.

Discrimination and bullying are other challenges often faced by foreign-born students, in school and outside of it. Many of them don’t look typically “Japanese,” so stares and whispers sometimes follow.

My Flex school is diverse enough, so bullying based on ethnicity or skin tone seems to be rare. (I don’t know for certain, of course, but from what I’ve seen, students interact seamlessly despite any difference in background). But even some of my most open-minded coworkers occasionally fall into stereotyping; in one class, two Brazilian girls usually start packing their backpacks when the bell has rung—they don’t wait for the teacher to formally dismiss the class. “They’re always too eager to leave,” the JTE commented afterwards, “It’s not very Japanese.”  It’s a tiny comment… almost insignificant in the grand scheme of things… but I know that tiny comments can build up after a while and really hurt.

Finally, cultural adjustment can be difficult for students as well. One of my students became a little bitter around Christmas this year—it’s a family holiday, and his whole extended family was half-way across the world in Peru. In addition, Christmas isn’t a national holiday in Japan, so both of his parents spent the day working.

Possible Advantages

To echo what I said before, students born and schooled in other countries before moving to Japan tend to have stronger English skills. I’ve had some very detailed conversations—about everything from world politics to recent films—with a few of my Filipino students in particular.

This tendency towards English gives foreign-born students an advantage in Japan, a country where English education has become a priority, but where the general population struggles with simple phrases.

One such advantage is at the numerous English speech competitions held throughout Japan. At Ibaraki Prefecture’s All-Commercial-High-School English Speech Competition this year, the two students chosen to be Ibaraki’s representatives for the country-wide final competition were two Filipino boys from my Commercial high school. (Yeah, two of my students won the prefectural competition! I was so proud!) They worked damn hard in the weeks leading up to the prefectural competition, of course. I’m not saying that they slacked off and still won. But my Commercial school sent 6 students to that competition, and when I was helping all of the students practice, it was clear that pronunciation and intonation came to the two Filipino boys so much easier than to the other students.

One of the school’s JTEs and I went to cheer on our two students at the Final All-Japan Commercial High School Speech Competition in Tokyo back in January. Both our boys advanced to the final round for their respective divisions (the recitation division and the personal speech division), and the JTE and I were thrilled. In the end, they didn’t win, but we were still ecstatic that the students advanced so far to begin with. The 1st and 2nd place winners in both divisions, by the way, were other foreign-born students.

Many students with stronger English skills pursue future jobs that utilize English, too. Any company that is international needs to have at least one English-speaking staff member, so these business jobs are up for grabs. Many customer-service jobs—like Narita airport staff or jobs at American hotel chains in the big cities—can require English skills as well. Having English on your resume can be a big advantage in Japan.

A final thing to note—not really an advantage, but a positive at least—is the sense of community. There’s a really strong Filipino Basketball league in Ibaraki because the community is so strong. Also, the Brazilian community in a nearby city (where many of my Brazilian students live) holds a festival every year, and some of our students handed out fliers around our school. Moving abroad doesn’t guarantee cultural isolation.

At My Other Schools:

As I previously mentioned, my Flex school has, by far, the most diversity. In the largest class that I teach at that school—a two-hour English Conversation class—8 out of the 20 students are foreign-born.

In another class, whose attendance dropped from 11 students in April to 6 students by November (not abnormal for a Flex school), 3 of the remaining 6 students were born and raised in Brazil, and 1 was at least born and possibly raised in the Philippines.

These are extreme examples, of course; my other schools seem to reflect a more typical Japanese school. My low-level academic school seems to have one or two foreign-born students in each class of 40, whereas my commercial school (which is probably the highest-level of my 5 schools) enrolls just a few per grade. I don’t think there is a single foreign-born student at my tech school.

A Final Note

I guess I don’t really have a conclusion. My goal wasn’t to argue anything in this post; I was merely listing observations, because this isn’t a topic that is really talked about.

Google it and you’ll find a lot of articles about international students who choose to spend a year or two at university in Japan, or do a high school exchange. And there are a few articles written by expats who permanently reside in Japan and have raised their kids up here since they were born or very small. But there don’t seem to be many articles about the students I have encountered. These students seem to slide under the radar, sometimes even in the cities where they live. Riding the train home with students, I see some Japanese passengers eye their school uniforms curiously, as if they didn’t know so many Brazilian students lived nearby!

Thoughts, opinions, criticisms? Let me know. Until next time!


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